The Do's and Don'ts of Being a Professional Reference

Sometimes, being a job reference for a friend or colleague can become a job in itself - so don't take it lightly. Here are Modern Manners Guy's 4 tips on being the best professional reference, while still staying friends with the person who asked you.

Richie Frieman,
June 22, 2014
Episode #300

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If you've ever been asked to be a professional reference for a friend or colleague, you know that the situation can be awkward—mainly because if you'd rather not do it, it might be hard to say "no" to someone you consider a friend.

But if you decide to say "yes,, don't take the commitment lightly—this person is asking you to be a reference for a reason, so you should deliver your commentary in the best way possible.>

When someone asks you to be a reference, they are doing so based on two specific characteristics they feel you possess: your success as a professional and your willingness to "do them a solid." So when you accept this role, remember that good or bad, what happens when you get the call from Mr. or Ms. CEO is all up to you.

With that in mind, check out my top 4 Quick and Dirty Tips on how to be a proper professional reference:

Tip #1: Be Professional

When a friend asks you to be a reference for them, you might respond with something like, “Of course, buddy! I’ll talk you up for sure! We’ll nail this job and then go celebrate.”

OK, maybe this exact conversation won't occur, but still, the idea is the same—ultimately, you want to help a friend get his or her dream job. With that as the goal, it's possible you may get over-excited about how to deliver your friend’s accomplishments on a professional silver platter. As in, “Hey there, Bob. Yup, Tony told me you would call and I’m psyched to tell you about how amazing of a person he is! We all think T-Dog is the best. The absolute best!”

Sure, Bob will admire your enthusiasm, but that’s not the kind of attitude you want to have or the kind of details Bob wants to hear. The energy level may be at a proper decibel, but the professional level—which is most important—is hovering somewhere around frat boy and Jersey Shore cast member.

When you’re a reference, you have to keep your professionalism in check so it doesn’t appear like you’re taking the caller's agenda lightly. They want honesty, not a rundown of your friend’s Top 10 Greatest Moments of Being a Best Bro. If that's what you provide, they will see through it and question your credibility. Even if you know the person in question intimately, and care about them dearly, don’t make it so nonchalant that it feels like you think he already has the job.

In fact, the way you come off could truly enhance (or diminish) the employer’s decision in hiring your “bro.”

Tip #2: Skip the Childhood Stories

I understand how people can get a bit too comfortable when talking up their friend. The danger of taking such a casual approach is that the conversation can become all about telling stories about that friend which totally derail the conversation.

For example, my colleague recently asked a reference, “How does Jill handle difficult situations?”—and got nothing related to difficult situations in return. Instead of relevant examples, my colleague was told a random story about how this candidate was a great study partner in college...15 years ago!

For 10 minutes this reference went on and on about how, back in the day, the candidate was “the life” of their study group. OK, great—but how does that answer the question? And how does someone’s skill set at 19 resonate with their professional work now? 

Yes, you have a bank of stories to call upon to sell your friend to an employer, but what do you think they want to hear?

Yes, you have a bank of stories to call upon to sell your friend to an employer, but what do you think they want to hear? I’ll give you a hint: They only want to hear what will make their company money. Being a good study partner, or the captain of the softball team in college, is not it.

So when you get a question like that, speak in the now. Use current language to showcase your friend's skill set.

For example, something like, “Jill is always up to date on the latest trends, and is always updating colleagues on news in XYZ industry." Or, "She belongs to multiple groups on LinkedIn about XYZ, and enjoys discussing current topics." Or "Jill is the charter member of XYZ organization in her spare time, which shows that she can balance her passion for work and her desire for giving back.”

Wow the manager with current examples that show how Jill is the ideal candidate for the job.


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